|The Persistence of Memory, Salvador Dali, 1931, MoMA, New York.|
Of great artists, it is one of his greatest works.
Of strange art, it is one of the strangest.
Salvador Dali is one of the most famous modern artists of all time and many of his artworks can be identified to be his even by an untrained eye. But he's also one of the forged artists in the world. The Persistence of Memory, completed in 1931 and housed in the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, draws audiences even as it repels them. You want to engage the piece, there is just enough one can recognize but not enough to "understand it." This post is in response to a reader's request last September.
|Salvador Dali and fellow artist Man Ray in Paris, 1943.|
Loosely defined, because that is the only way you can define deconstruction, it works to show how art undermines itself, it is always in a state of self-contradiction. In The Persistence of Memory, then, we can take the title word "persistence," and put against the clocks in the piece and say, that the clocks are memory, because memory exists within a time frame, and because the clocks are in a state of decomposition, melting and flabby, it's not just that there is no persistence of memory, but that memory itself is not even possible. That is the purpose of the red watch case in the lower, left corner, covered with ants: no matter how hard we "work" (the ants) to remember something, the possibility of remembering is sealed off (the closed case).
Marxist understanding of the piece.
The Marxist perspective is very handy because it deals with, not only class struggle, but all materialism, anything that is material either has a value or does not (and this is simplified but this is merely a demonstration) and is in possession of someone or not. In The Persistence of Memory, the clocks are the material: because pocket watches are a luxury item, even family heirlooms from one generation of upper class men to their sons in the next generation of the upper-class. The "platform" upon which the tree rests and the flat blue platform in the upper, right region of the painting represent class standing and classes above the proletariat, or the poor worker, symbolized by the humanoid fish in the center. The worker ants, trying to get the watch case open, are the workers trying to get into an upper class, a more stable economic position, but it is sealed off to them.
Leisure Hours and Victorian Consumption, where I do a material explication of a painting of two little girls in red dresses).
There are many ways to incorporate a gender reading in the painting, and I will briefly explore two of them. First, the ants on the reddish watch are ruled by a female queen and the attempts at the workers trying to get the watch open, which not only symbolizes "memory" but history as well, just as the ants cannot get into the sealed watch, so women cannot gain access to his-story and the real political power which would enable women to exert influence and shape the world; women not being included in the political process is exactly what leads to the barrenness of the landscape (because fertility is associated with females) and men, represented by the humanoid figure in the center, are dying because of the bad historical decisions they have made (the melting clock atop the figure).
Dali traditionally has that opposition buried within his works, between the softness of the female body and the hardness of the male body. The figure in the center is actually a female political presence being born into a world that is barren but full of possibilities: in 1929, women "were officially recognized to be persons" by the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council in Britain which allowed for women to hold political office. Woman has finally entered onto the world stage of politics. Women were also making solo flights around the world, and women entering into traditionally held areas of power and skill held by men mean that the platforms in The Persistence of Memory will no longer be uneven, but leveled out as women achieve more and more.
New Historicism approach.
Actually, this is only going to be an approach to the New Historicism approach; New Historicism relies heavily on research--which is one of the reasons I love it, I love doing research--but I don't have the time to invest in it for this example. First, a historical approach is best because the clocks symbolize history and memory, as invoked by the title, invites us to remember lessons from history. 1931, the year The Persistence of Memory was finished is the key point, because in 1929, the Great Depression started and the economic losses of the collective world is why the landscape is so barren.
Surrealist art and Abstract art: sur-real art has an element of the "real" in it, there are elements you can recognize although it won't make much "sense." Abstract art, on the other hand, as a general rule, abstracts reality so it is still reality although there is nothing recognizable on the surface as reality, you have to dig for it, which usually puts it on the level of the inner-reality, even mysticism (this, again, is simplification, but it is accurate).
|Black Square, Kazimir Malevich, circa 1913; abstract art.|
|Diego Velazquez, Crucifixion.|
|The Christ of St. John of the Cross, Dali.|
|Icon of St. Francis of Assisi.|
La Dolce Vita).
Importantly, there is a reflection of the mountain in the water below, and that symbolizes the reflective aspect of the spiritual life, the "desert fathers," where they stripped themselves of all earthly priorities and give themselves to the eternal. The third part of the painting is the blue slate, the state of wisdom bridging the material foreground and the spiritual labors in the background. There is a small "boulder" beside the platform because the earthly will always weigh upon them and try to turn them back from where they have set their sites, but they have achieved a level or status of wisdom and holiness.
|Photograph of Dali, 1939.|